The Spirit of Classical Italian Violin Making
First published by the British Violin Makers Association
Over the last thirty years, our knowledge of classical Italian violin making in the period from about 1550 to 1750 has increased dramatically. Varnish analysis, geometrical investigations and historical research, as well as the documentation and interpretation of instruments have all made important contributions, so not only has the quality of new instruments improved, but we are nearer solving the enigma of the classical violin maker’s craft.
Although accumulating knowledge can lead to greater intellectual understanding, we cannot truly understand anything without being part of that experience; you cannot, for example, be a jazz musician simply by reading the notes off the page, or be a wood turner without knowing the feeling of the wood spinning against the end of your gouge. The performance of any activity is not just the result of technical ability, but the interplay of numerous factors, absorbed, often unconsciously, as you are engaged in the task. Of course, we cannot go back in time and work with the classical Italian violin makers, but the more we can work out how they did things, and more importantly why they did so, the nearer we can come to understanding the spirit of classical Italian violin making.
It is this spirit, over and above any particular aspect of an instrument, which makes an instrument special. In regard to both tone and appearance, in a great instrument we are looking for something ephemeral which will raise it above the ordinary, just as when we listen to music we want the musicians to do more than just keep time and play the right notes. To attempt a definition, what singles out a great instrument is a vibrancy of intent pervading the entirety of the instrument; the maker’s concept, indeed their very character, expressed in the accumulation of small gestures. This is perhaps an unusual starting point for examining instruments, but to capture the essence of classical violin making we need to look at the body of work as a whole, as much as is possible through 16th or 17th century eyes.
Working with their hands
In pre-industrial societies including Renaissance and Baroque Italy, most people earned their living by working with their hands. Craftsmen of all trades were usually involved with every stage of construction, from preparing raw materials to designing and constructing every part of the finished product. So whereas an artist nowadays simply uses paint out of a tube, the painter of the 16th century was thoroughly familiar with his pigments, having spent hours grinding colours as an apprentice. He knew where they came from, how they were produced and how they reacted with other pigments and in the medium he was using. Equally, the stone mason’s apprentice would probably start work with dressing stone, mixing mortar and holding one end of a piece of string whilst the master laid out foundations, but by the time he finished his apprenticeship he would understand the proportional geometry necessary to construct the interlocking arches which form vaulted ceilings.
As part of this group of craftsmen and artists, the instrument maker fitted in very easily. As such, it would be surprising if they were not capable of using similar rules of proportion and geometry to arrive at their own individual outlines, being sufficiently familiar with the constructional principles to adapt them to their own aesthetic sense; and we know they had sufficient knowledge to manipulate the materials used in varnishing, even if they did not make the varnish themselves. That they were competent and skilled woodworkers goes without saying. This opinion was shared by the physician, alchemist and author, Leonardo Fioravanti, who wrote in 1573 :
He who would be esteemed in the art of musical instrument making must firstly be a Painter in order to know how to design the form of the instruments; secondly he must be a Smith in order to make tools to proportion his art; thirdly, he must be a Master Wood Worker in order to make the mechanics of the instrument, fourth, he must be a Musician in order to make well the proportions of the voicing; lastly he must be an Alchemist in order to know the preparation of the metals with which to make the strings…. He who would discover everything in this art would discover a multitude of diverse things, as if it were a deluge and would never find an end, much and deep and of great practise and science it is.
The Universal Man
In noting the depth and breadth of knowledge involved in instrument making, Fioravanti is deliberately casting the instrument maker in the role of a Renaissance Man, or Uomo Universale. This concept of the Universal Man would have been immediately recognised by his readers as the ideal to which man can aspire, being skilled in all areas of knowledge, both intellectually and practically. And whilst we cannot expect the instrument makers to have been authors, linguists and architects on the days they were not making violins, they nonetheless were part of a culture defined by the artistic and philosophical values of the late Renaissance and early Baroque. So although their manual ability was a product of the traditional transfer of skills between master and pupil, the concept of their instruments and their aesthetic goals were derived from contemporary cultural ideals. So even without any written evidence of why the instrument makers worked as they did, by interpreting the instruments in the light of cultural ideas and the social and economic constraints of the time, we can form an idea of their aims.
A Standard Output?
An obvious feature of classical Italian instruments is how essentially similar they are. In terms of this discussion, however, there is one group that stands out. These are the instruments where no expense was spared, which could be seen as the high point of the makers’ work and are therefore most likely to reflect what they were trying to achieve. Obvious examples are Andrea Amati’s set of instruments made for King Charles 9th of France, and Stradivari’s decorated instruments. Not surprisingly, these instruments were made of high quality materials and were put together with care, but to make them extra special they were also elaborately embellished. As such, they embodied the essence of baroque style, like the fashionable clothes of the day which were lavishly embroidered with silk and metal threads. However, with the exception of the painted or inlaid decoration, these instruments are of the same quality as the makers’ standard output, which although less ornate, are also typically baroque in style. So just as baroque architecture is characterised by ornamentation overlaid upon a geometric design, in the violin we have the decorative features, such as the scroll and corners, embellishing an object designed on the principles of proportion and symmetry.
Detail of the decoration on the back of a cello made by Andrea Amati for Charles lX of France. The use of gold as well as the obvious crown show that this instrument was made for an important person. The rest of the work, however, is of similar quality to Amati’s other instruments.
When we take a closer look at the instruments in relation to these ideals, however, we find that the proportions are not exact, the shapes are only approximately symmetrical and the level of finish is far from perfect. This prompts the question as to why there is such a divergence between the guiding principles and the end result. Why, for example, would they go to the effort of drawing outlines and making symmetrical moulds, but end up with outlines which are significantly different from one side to the other and between back and belly? There are certainly practical reasons as to why this occurs, which I will come to later, but in allowing it to happen, these discrepancies cannot have offended the violin makers’ idea of beauty.
The Concept of Beauty
Since Renaissance ideas first swept through Italy, the concept that beauty derives from order and a harmony of proportions had been central to cultural life. In the visual arts, the use of symmetry was fundamental to Renaissance and Baroque design, and still remains at the core of our idea of beauty today. This is because the appreciation of symmetry is likely to be innate. Studies show that when people are presented photos of human faces, the more symmetrical faces are held to be more beautiful than those that are less symmetrical. However, if you flip an image of one half of a person’s face to make a whole face, many people find the resulting image somewhat disconcerting, probably because we know intuitively that absolute symmetry is unnatural. Whether this perception was understood by the Italian violin makers is an open question, but with their undoubted visual awareness, they must have known that their instruments deviated from their drawings, and at the very least, they were sufficiently unconcerned to let it go. A more likely explanation, however, is that their perception of beauty embraced the idea that the final product was not exactly symmetrical and that it benefited from growing organically out of the ideals of proportion. In music we have an analogous situation; the great baroque composers being happy to bend the rules of harmony to increase the drama and tension of the music, stretching and distorting the idealised form to produce more interesting works.
Roughness of Surface
Regarding the finish of the instruments we have a similar dichotomy, with a surface which was obviously acceptable to the classical violin makers, but certainly not perfect. So whereas the overall shapes exhibit motion, direction and intent, the surface of the wood is often covered in scraper and gouge marks, and sometimes bits of wood are torn out of the figure. Admittedly many of the tool marks would originally have been less obvious when covered with varnish, a typical feature of which was its even thickness, no matter how uneven the underlying surface. As Koen Padding described it:
‘the coats seem to have simply fallen over any roughness in the woodwork like a blanket of snow.’
The reason why we can easily see the tool marks is because the wear over the years has taken varnish off the high points but left it in the hollows, so the contrast in colour accentuates the unevenness of the woodwork. On the bellies of instruments in near-pristine condition we also see that the surface is not flat, the varnish on Stradivari’s Messiah violin, for example, follows the corrugations of the wood as it goes across the grain lines. On most instruments the abrasion from players’ clothes has thinned down the varnish on the spring wood more than over the sunken summer wood, thus accenting the reed lines, but the same effect also occurs when a varnish is intentionally rubbed down. Since we do not see that effect on pristine instruments, it shows that the instruments were not rubbed down, or only minimally so, between coats.
The front of the Messiah violin by Antonio Stradivari, showing undulations across the grain.
© John Milnes, image courtesy of Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
These deficits in precision suggest that the classical violin makers’ way of working was much more matter-of-fact than we usually acknowledge, and quite different from our romantic notion of the meticulous craftsman, bent over the bench obsessing over every detail. Of course, some craftsmen such as the Amati family and Stradivari were more precise than the majority. It is certainly possible that having the most prestigious customers, they may have taken more time over each instrument. Nonetheless, their workmanship bears no signs of being forced, suggesting that their work was naturally accurate and controlled, rather than that they were taking special care. Moreover, their precise craftsmanship is at one with their overall conception, the beauty of the shapes and the varnish. This is an attribute we see repeatedly, the workmanship of any maker matching their own design; the less perfect the design, the less perfect the tool use. Comparing the work of Nicolo Amati and his pupil Andrea Guarneri, for example, Andrea Guarneri’s bolder tool use entirely suits his more robust shapes, whereas Amati’s work remains precise and light, matching the elegance of his outlines, scrolls and f holes. This should come as no surprise, as the maker’s artistic sensibilities are the same, whether at the design stage or when making the instrument.
Whether working in a collected manner or with gay abandon, the approach of the classical violin makers was sufficiently free to allow a trained eye and a skilled hand to follow the inclination of the moment, and in so doing reflect the artistic nature and working temperament of the individual maker. Underpinning that artistic freedom was a thorough familiarity with tools and materials, combined with working methods that produced the result quickly, naturally and with a minimum of fuss. The linings left fresh from the knife, purfling strips of uneven thickness, and the asymmetry between the sides of the scroll are additional evidence that the violins were made quickly. The number of instruments the makers produced also indicates a no-nonsense approach; though coming up with an accurate figure of annual production is problematic. Having had no employees, del Gesu’s production is perhaps a useful benchmark, having made sixteen instruments in his most prolific year.
But perhaps the most compelling reason to believe that the classical violin makers worked in a thoroughly pragmatic manner is because they lived in a society where all work was accomplished by human effort, animal power, and a smattering of wind and water power. In such a world, you do not waste energy moving things twice, or do anything in two stages when one will do; instead you devise tools and techniques to work quickly using the available muscle to best advantage. Although in comparison with some other crafts the physical effort involved in violin making is not all that great, the principle of using straightforward and effective working techniques is just as valid in violin making as it is in the work of the wheelwright or silversmith.
Today our idolisation of the classical Italian violin makers, particularly Stradivari, means we are compelled to put them in the same category as great artists, but in doing so we undervalue the importance of their down-to-earth craft-based tradition. Our modern obsession with precision also prevents us from seeing their work as a natural result of simple procedures, performed without undue deliberation. However, when we look at the instruments from the point of view of a ‘mere’ craftsman who needs to get through his work using quick and easy techniques, not only do we see how things might have been done, but also gain a greater insight into the spirit of classical Italian violin making.
1 – The mirror of Universal Science, Leonardo Fioravanti, 1573
2 – A rational look at classical coatings, Koen Padding, VSA papers Summer 2005, Vol 1, no 1.
In the first part of this article I explored how the instruments made in Italy during the two hundred years from 1550 were informed by the cultural ideas which were part of the Renaissance, but how their realisation grew out of the practicalities of working in wood in a traditional craft-based society. As part of this practical working ethos, the need to work effectively and efficiently influenced both the techniques used by the classical Italian violin makers and the appearance of the finished instruments. This contrasts with our modern interpretation of quality, and the early training many of us received which often leads to rather effete working habits where we cut away from the line and then tickle away with small tools until the line is met. The evidence of classical Italian instruments, however, shows the makers were forthright in their use of tools. Whether they worked very precisely or with greater freedom, their instruments are always workmanlike, a term which encompasses the idea that the work was of good or acceptable quality carried out in a straightforward and no-nonsense manner.
A workmanlike approach
A simple example of these differing approaches is the creation of the thickness of the edgework, which is usually a little thicker at the corners than elsewhere. The method in common usage when I was training was to set a marking gauge at 4mm for the majority of the violin’s outline but ½ mm more at the corners, and blend the two as the line moved away from the corners. The fluting was then brought up to a line which would define the high point of the edge, a millimetre or so away from the edge of the plate, and then the edgework was rounded back to the same line. Although this is not particularly difficult, neither is it very workmanlike, in contrast with making the edge thickness 4.5mm thick throughout, and then using the position of gouge when doing the fluting to define the edge thickness. With this method the marking gauge only needs to be set once, and the purfling platform does not need to be made as accurately or as smoothly because with the exception of the corners, none of this surface will remain on the finished instrument. When doing the fluting the gouge simply cuts to the very edge of the plate, except at the corners where it is gradually brought in to where you otherwise would have marked the high point of the edgework. Then as the edgework is rounded off, the thickness of the edge is reduced along the majority of the outline, but naturally swells towards the corners. The desired result is thus produced not just more quickly but also with more grace, because you are not working to an arbitrary line, but intersecting the existing defined curve of the fluting as the edge is rounded.
With the cutting of the purfling channel, we have the purfling cutters used by Stradivari to indicate the method he used. In contrast to using a purfling marker to simultaneously mark both inside and outside lines and then using a knife to cut the channel, the single line cutters of Stradivari have many advantages. Instead of having to pay very close attention as when using a knife to ensure that it is running true, when using the purfling cutter the pressure against the edge of the back or belly ensures it cuts in the right place, and because it is held in front of you, you can see that it remains upright so the cut also remains vertical. Because the marker is held with your whole hand, the muscles of the whole hand are used in transferring the weight and power of your arm to the work, as opposed to using a knife when all the pressure is applied through one or two fingers. Defining the depth of the cut when using a knife is also somewhat hit and miss, usually requiring some more work with the knife after the wood has been removed from the channel, but when using a cutter the depth stop automatically regulates the depth of the channel. The thickness of the cutter blade also means the wood is compressed after it has been cut, so the final channel is wider at the top than at the bottom. This makes it easier to put in the purfling, especially if it is inserted in separate strips, and when the glue is applied the wood swells back to its original position, tight against the purfling.
Hollowing the back and belly
One of the most inefficient techniques we indulge in is the use of gouges to arch and hollow the back and belly. The trouble with using a gouge is that the thickness of the wood removed with each cut is dependent on the angle of attack, so we have to develop a technique which prevents the gouge from running too shallowly and coming out of the wood, or going too deeply and bringing the gouge to a halt. A common method is to bend over the plate with a two-handed gouge, and tensioning the shoulders and arms for control, slowly remove parallel strips of wood. The result is thus achieved painfully slowly, with great concentration, stiff shoulders, a hurting back and a general feeling that there must be a better way.
A small scrub plane, 135 mm long
A better solution is the scrub plane. These planes have a flat sole but a rounded iron and were used in pre-power tool days for the initial planing of timber after it had been sawn. For violin making, however, a sole that is rounded in both length and width is more useful, and absolutely necessary for hollowing. The primary advantage of using a plane is that the amount of wood removed is fixed by the set of the iron, so you can work much more quickly, whilst matching the amount of force needed to the resistance of the plane. This saving of energy, combined with an upright stance and free flowing movements means the procedure is much less tiring than using a gouge. As to its influence on the instrument, because the arching develops as a whole, rather than in a series of gouged hollows, it is easier to see the shapes, and because the scrub plane is used along the grain it tends to encourage arching that flows along the instrument. Equally, when hollowing, as long as the longitudinal curve of the sole is similar to the inside shape of the instrument, developing the hollow and keeping the thickness fairly constant comes much more naturally than when using a gouge.
The use of the mould
The last piece of equipment I want to consider is the mould and how it is used. In regard to the speed of construction, the mould has numerous advantages over making ribs on a board. When preparing the blocks there is less need to check the direction of the grain because you can mark the curves on both ends of the blocks and cut from either end. Bending the ribs is much quicker because as long as there is a greater amount of bend on the tighter curves than the shallower curves, the ribs do not need to be bent to the exact shape of the mould because the ribs are pulled tight against the mould as the ribs are glued to the blocks. By contrast when working on a board there is nothing to keep the ribs in shape so they need to be precisely bent, which might require repeated adjustments on the bending iron. When fitting linings, with the ribs on the mould both sets can be fitted before removing the rib structure which allows the linings to be cut back whilst still on the mould, a method confirmed by the knife marks on Stradivari’s moulds. Because the ribs are held securely against the mould, thicker shavings can be taken off the linings, often in a complete stroke from one end of the lining to other, without fear of twisting and breaking the ribs or cutting oneself with the knife.
Whether the classical Italian violin makers made their designs using the mould or the final outline as their starting point, that they generated the outline once the ribs were finished seems irrefutable, as the overhang between plates and ribs is usually fairly consistent. Looking at it the other way, if they had first cut out the back and belly and then made the ribs, some instruments, particularly cellos, would have a negative overhang! Although we know that it is quite possible to produce ribs which accurately follow the mould, the ribs and outlines on classical Italian instruments tend to be asymmetrical and deviate from the mould. In all probability this is partly due to the procedure the Italian violinmakers adopted to ensure that the neck of the instrument was in line with the centre line of the body, as put forward by Roger Hargrave.  This method utilises the pins which go through the back and into the top or bottom block as pivots around which the neck and ribs are rotated until the neck is aligned with the centre line of the instrument’s body, and in that process the ribs are distorted. Although this does explain some of the eccentricity, particularly when one c bout is high than the other, it does not satisfactorily explain the different curves sometimes seen on opposite c bouts, or the difference between the outlines of belly and back.
These variations can be explained by the way the mould was used, specifically in the method of clamping the ribs to the blocks. This is most easily seen by looking at how the c ribs were clamped. The way I was taught was to use a piece wood planed at an angle at both ends, with which to push the ends of the ribs towards the mould as the clamp was tightened. Although it is a peculiar set up to have a clamp working at right angles to the surface being glued, this method works reasonably well as long as the rib ends and the surface of the blocks are square, and that the curve of the block continues the curve of the mould. The advantage of this method, if you think it is important, is that the rib is pushed hard against the mould, so reproducing the intended outline. As long as the edge of the rib is pushed down onto the bench, the rib remains square so the outlines of back and belly are the same. Neither of these features, however, are typical of the old Italian instruments, whose blocks are often not square and the top edge of the rib takes a different route between blocks as the bottom edge.
Glueing the c ribs to the blocks using pegs, counter blocks and string.
However, using the method of using clamping blocks and string, indicated by Stradivari’s moulds and tools, solves all these problems. As far as the clamping function is concerned, it is no longer necessary to cut the blocks square because the string allows the clamping block to work at an angle, and if the curve of the block is not quite continuous with the mould, the rib is still held tight against the block. In comparison with the modern method, the rib is not pushed tightly into the mould; that depends on keeping pressure on the rib and clamping block with one hand whilst wrapping the string round the counter-block and peg with the other hand. When gluing the rib it is possible for the rib to slip so it is no longer parallel to the mould. If this occurs, when the other end of the rib is glued to the other corner block a twist can develop in the rib, so even when blocks are cut square and accurately to the corner shapes, there still can be a difference between the shapes of the top and bottom edges of the rib, as one side is pulled away from the mould.
Top and back outlines of the c ribs showing the discrepancy which can be created when clamping using string. The blocks on the bass side [left] were cut square but the rib was glued as described for the previous picture. On the treble side the blocks were cut ½ mm out of square.
Thus the way a mould is used demonstrates the difference in approach between the classical Italian violin makers and the customary approach of our own time. Although it may seem an improvement to use a clamp rather than pieces of string, the changes imposed by the use of a clamp fundamentality alters the aesthetics of an instrument; the rib shape influencing the outline and the corner shapes, which then affects the purfling and the alignment of the f-holes.
Gaps in the evidence
In trying to reproduce old working techniques, there is bound to be some guesswork because of the gaps in the evidence. The weakest case is for the use of scrub planes, because if there are tool marks on the inside of instruments near the top or bottom blocks, these could equally well have been made by a large thumb plane or a gouge. But by the same token, the evidence for using a two-handed gouge is just as weak. [Since the publication of this article, a fellow violin maker, Hubert de Launay, sent me photos of an Andrea Guarneri cello and a Montagnana double bass, both of which show long clean plane marks all over the insides of the plates – clear signs of scrub planes having been used.]
With any technique there may also have been differences between individual makers. The method of regulating the edgework, for instance, would need to be modified in order to produce the thinner corners of G B Guadagnini, and it won’t work at all on instruments such as those of Pietro Guarneri of Venice, Bellosio or on some del Gesus, where the fluting outside the purfling is so steep that the curve would never reach the outside edge. Nonetheless, no matter how individuals varied in their techniques, the utilisation of straightforward procedures was essential to working quickly and efficiently. With constant repetition this became intuitive, giving them the freedom to work with boldness and fluency, which in turn allowed them to effortlessly imprint their intention on the instrument.
1 – Roger Hargrave, from ‘Guisseppe Guarneri del Gesu’ by Carlo Chiesa, Roger Hargrave et al. 1998
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